EDITORIAL NOTE: This guest blog post was written by Helen Hutchison, president of the League of Women Voters of California
The League of Women Voters of California is celebrating a historic voting rights victory: the right to vote is being restored to nearly 60,000 people who had previously been incarcerated and, as a result, have been disenfranchised for the past three years. We’re thrilled that so many people’s voting rights are being restored, and that our state recognizes the importance of expanding our electorate. This is especially important in California, where the total number of registered voters has dropped over the last two years, and only about 30 percent of eligible voters participated in the last state election in November 2014.
In California, only people imprisoned or on parole for conviction of a felony are ineligible to vote. People on other forms of supervision, such as probation or drug diversion, do have the right to vote. The League of Women Voters of California took the lead 40 years ago to make this a part of our state’s Constitution (PDF). For a long time, we’ve recognized that restoring a formerly incarcerated person’s voting rights is an important way to help individuals reintegrate into their communities and to prevent minorities from being disproportionately disenfranchised due to the racial disparities rampant in our criminal justice system.
However, in December 2011, our former Secretary of State issued a directive (PDF) to local elections officials stating that otherwise-eligible Californians are ineligible to vote if they are on post-release community supervision or mandatory supervision, two new and innovative local supervision programs for people sentenced for low-level, non-violent felonies. This injustice spurred the League of Women Voters of California to join the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the organization All of Us or None as well as three affected individuals, in a lawsuit filed last year to reverse the directive.
Last spring, an Alameda County Superior Court judge agreed with us that the directive violated California law, but the then-Secretary of State appealed and continued to fight for the disenfranchisement of California voters. With the election of a new Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, the state’s appeal has been dropped. Earlier this month, we joined Secretary Padilla as he announced the restoration of voting rights for the 60,000 Californians impacted by this lawsuit. The California League is so excited that state officials are standing up for the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, many of whom are people of color.
But as we look back on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), we also know there’s so much left to be done to make our elections fair, free and accessible to all eligible citizens. We need Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, after it was stripped of its power by the Supreme Court two years ago. Across the country, voters are more vulnerable to discrimination than they have been since the VRA’s passage in 1965. Our recent efforts with this lawsuit in California may have felt like a long process—and we’ve made a big step—but we also recognize that they are just a part of the long path toward suffrage for all across the United States.
What can you do to join the fight for voting rights? Tell Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act!